Lightning Bolts and Fury
"God as we understood him": This was just one of the many confusing statements I had heard in AA rooms. "You've got to give it away to keep it" was another. "Keep it simple," an old-timer told me in his most assured way. Then in the very next breath, he said: "If you don't have your own higher power, you can borrow mine."
What does this "God as we understand him" bit mean anyway? For the longest time I had doubted whether these coffee-suckin' scholars had any spiritual conviction whatsoever. I wondered why they felt it necessary to qualify their belief in God. This "as we understand him" business was the most feeble profession of faith I'd ever heard.
But it occurred to me that maybe I had these AAs all wrong. Wasn't it possible that they were just trying, with this Higher Power concept, to let some agnostic folks down easy? These holy rollers can be very clever. They know the surest way to scare off one of the lost sheep is to hit him both barrels with the redemption spiel--especially when the wayfaring stranger is still reeking of booze. Instead of fire and brimstone, this underhanded group of Bible-thumpers would slowly indoctrinate their pigeons with the piecemeal "God of our understanding" method. I pitied those who were gullible enough to fall for such a lame con job.
But that was their problem. The religious fanatics in the program wouldn't dare pin me down on theological matters, although at times I wished they would have. I had good answers for them. After all, I'd been raised in the Catholic Church. For as long as I could remember there had been a living, breathing deity in my life. He spun the earth on his fingertips, and every now and then, to make his presence known, he heaved lightning bolts through the darkness. The nuns let me know early on that my sole purpose in life was to worship and glorify this God. And their purpose would be to spread a little of God's angry wrath in the here and now--whether I understood the divine plan or not. Stark fear alone drove me to the top of my catechism class and to the honor award each year. My understanding of God became well-reputed. My awards served as inscribed testimonials. So who needs a bunch of reformed drunks teaching him religion? Not me.
I squirmed in my chair whenever one of our more pious members would allude to Bible passages during meetings. Unfortunately for him, a friend of mine shared my view that even the most casual scriptural reference had no place in AA. The two of us became so indignant with certain religious group members that we even discussed, as a protest, starting our own recovery program.
Despite my resentment toward certain people in the program, I was getting somewhat well (through osmosis, I guess). I had been around the program for a good while and was attending meetings on a regular basis. Early on, I was mercifully relieved of the drink obsession. I read the "Twelve and Twelve" with zeal and made great progress on my character defects in general. However, I had a problem with one of the Steps.
Each time I read the Step book, I would irresistibly skip from Step Ten to Step Twelve. Though I had read Step Eleven many times and had no difficulty in understanding it, the whole concept seemed too high-minded for me: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out."
"What mortal man actually thinks like this?" I wondered. I believed that this Step was for people who were ready to sell all their worldly belongings and relocate to the desert for a strict diet of locusts and honey. St. Francis was surely an admirable man, but I needed a more current role model. I was light years away from reciting his prayer with any real conviction. In fact, all of my prayers were perfunctory and hollow. It was hard for me to talk to God. I figured that a hardheaded realist like myself was not worthy--and that was my problem.
I felt unworthy in many ways--not only before God, but in quite a few other areas of my life. Though I hadn't had a drink of alcohol in years and the program was starting to work for me in spite of myself, there were many other problems. I still dragged a deep-seated inferiority complex around like an anchor. My low self-esteem made it tough for me to get along with people at work (and with people in general), which made holding a job difficult. On an intellectual level, I figured I had as much on the ball as most folks; but for more practical, everyday purposes, I couldn't accept myself as being the equal of others. I'd felt this way for as long as I could remember. This oversensitivity stagnated my development in business and social circles. It made me deeply resent myself and others, and led me into deep depressions.
Further reinforcing my feelings of self-doubt was the progress I saw newcomers make in the program while I continued spinning my wheels. I began to wonder if I could even make a good recovering alcoholic.
My salvation came one meeting in the words of a humble AA old-timer.
I remember him saying, "I have found that the happiest people in the program are those who claim to have a strong Higher Power."
His declaration was an eye-opener for me. My Higher Power was not strong. I hadn't allowed him to be. My relationship with him was so poor that he couldn't possibly exert his strength and power in my life. At that point, I realized that just like the many aspects of my character that were defective, so was my concept of God.
I knew that countless generations of people all over the world had found God. They discovered him in many places and in a variety of ways: in their churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues--and through twelve-step programs. I hadn't found him at all.
I began to wonder if the Catholic Church had failed me. The "God of our Fathers" had worked for my mother and her mother before her, but in my alcoholic mind, I had decided that this God simply wouldn't work for me. The whole notion of a faith that works had eluded me. My understanding of God was precise and intellectual--and nothing more. Though I could hardly believe it possible, for all intents and purposes I was an agnostic. I realized that I'd have to rethink the whole God concept.
"Maybe there's something to this God-as-we-understand-him thing," I thought.
I knew that my aversion to the God of my childhood had kept me from practicing Step Three in the way it is written, turning my will and life over to the care of God. Yet at times, I strangely assumed that I had. I began to realize that it wasn't enough to simply understand the Step: action on my part would be necessary.
My problem with Step Eleven also became quickly evident. How could I improve a conscious contact that didn't exist in the first place?
I asked myself, "If there truly were a God, what would he be like?"
Maybe he'd be like some AAs say: a loving, caring creator, a personal God that I could contact at all times. I wondered if this was not too simplistic to be real. If I could borrow another's Higher Power, could I not create a similar one of my own? I found that I could.
I started praying to my new Higher Power every morning. To my great amazement, the silent and informal prayers began to work. It was like discovering that I had a powerful and dependable friend who was capable of drastically improving my life, yet for years I had doubted his influence and therefore ignored him. No longer were my prayers like whistling in the wind. Through practice, they now gave me great peace of mind.
Reapplying the Steps with my new God-consciousness led me to the spiritual awakening I thought I'd never have. As a result, I've learned the meaning of a new word: humility. The word itself has a personal meaning that brings to mind the Serenity Prayer. When I was able to accept myself, others, and the world around me all being the way they should be, God began to change the things about me that I could not change myself. Through the gift of this new perspective on life, my Higher Power has relieved me of my feelings of inferiority. Now, I'm not only sober, but happy.
"God as we understand him": to me, this was a feeble profession of faith, a folly, until I myself found God in just that way.